The era of misplaced QR codes is here

By now, you’ve probably seen quick response (QR) codes appearing just about everywhere. These high-contrast two-dimensional barcode graphics were appropriated from obscurity to convey information, mostly as a URL, about an object displaying the QR code. While it’s enjoyed widespread popularity in Japan and Europe for the last six years, it’s only recently become mainstream here in the mobile technology backwaters (better known as the United States). Unfortunately, not everyone realizes how QR codes are best used.

QR code of my vCard.

This is a high-density QR code of my vCard. (The space around it is part of the QR code specification; it helps scanners more quickly distinguish the code from the surrounding noise.)

Technology is the development and use of tools to solve specific problems: The codex (stores and conveys human knowledge and culture). The light bulb (illuminates the darkness). The integrated circuit (miniaturizes computation). With the emergence of each new technology, there is (always in hindsight) an awkward period of questionable, mismatched, or just plain ineffective uses of it while we adjust our paradigm to accommodate. I affectionately call this the “horseless carriage” stage (a term used to describe the automobile before that word caught on).

2011 seems to be when this “horseless carriage” stage takes QR codes for a ride. Let’s begin with a few good, bad and ugly examples.

Ugly

  • Displaying a QR code on a Web page to convey a link to another Web page. The information encoded in a QR code is intended for a mobile device. Why link to a Web page on a mobile device when you’re already using a Web browser? (Here's an example) What if that Web browser is your mobile device? (Yes, I've deliberately demonstrated this above with my QR code, but at least it's a link to my contact information instead of just another web page!)
  • Displaying a QR code in a television ad. By the time the viewer is interested, launches a QR code scanner on their mobile device, and walks up to the TV (so that the image legible to scanning), the ad is already over (Here's an example).

Bad

  • Displaying a QR code in a magazine. In nearly all cases, this QR code is pointing to a Web site that is printed in the ad or article where the QR code appears. Which do you think is easier: typing in a URL from a magazine or scanning the QR code to have your Web browser load the same?
  • Displaying a QR code on a business card. Business cards already serve as a means to share information in a handy mobile package. Adding a QR code to it, with only a URL encoded, is a gimmicky waste of time. (A less contrived use would be to encode an individual’s vcard data, for easy import into a contacts manager.)

Good

  • Displaying a QR code for product information. Already being piloted by REI and Whole Foods, QR codes are being used to give consumers a way to quickly navigate to additional information about the associated product, including reviews, recipes, and related products.
  • Displaying a QR code for location-based services. Because space is limited on signage, QR codes can be used to provide additional information and context about a specific location. Moreover, this information can be updated remotely, as frequently as needed.

Best

  • The destination must be mobile friendly. No matter what the purpose of the QR code, always make the destination (if a URL, for example) formatted for mobile devices because 99.9% of the time, a mobile device is used to scan the QR code. Not following this cardinal rule will only lower the impression your users have of you (or your product, service, or offering).

The challenge ahead isn’t going to be the effective use of QR codes; that will come with experience at using them. The immediate hurdle is the quality and accessibility of tools for reading and using QR codes. With a modern smartphone, it's relatively easy to find an app that reads a QR code. (A quick search in the Apple App store finds over a dozen.) My preference is the i-nigma reader, because of its large number of supported devices (i.e., including the 70% of the phones in the world that aren't considered "smart"). For generating QR codes, I recommend goqr.me. In the meantime, I welcome your examples of strange or unusal uses of QR codes in the comments.